Sunrise magic at Charleston’s Cape Romain

Wildlife refuge features beach, shells, gators, birds

I’m in love. With a place.

My friends have heard me refer to it as “mine.” Located just north of Charleston, Cape Romain actually belongs to all Americans since it’s designated a national wildlife refuge. And since I always stay near Charleston and eat there when I visit the refuge, I also refer to it possessively with the popular southern town.

While my family and I describe ourselves as “national park zealots,” we also explore nearby wildlife refuges during our vacations. Many of our national refuges lack the accessibility and facilities of our park system. They’re much more “wild” than parks. Refuges have fewer trails and overlooks, and fewer visitors, which is why I like them so much. Plus I love photographing animals and birds and trudging through a refuge in search of its wildlife.

My favorite, hands down, is Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and Bulls Island, SC. On average, I visit it four times a year, even though I live seven hours away round-trip. So its hold upon me is persistent and strong. It’s also a refuge that’s very accessible to people, thanks to Coastal Expeditions, a group of naturalists and guides devoted to sharing the ecosystem with families and outdoor enthusiasts.

This refuge features some of the cleanest water in the world with incredibly diverse bird, animal, plant and sea life, all protected as a Class 1 Wilderness Area. Here’s my advice on how to explore this amazing place.

Cape Romain's Boneyard Beach
Cape Romain's Boneyard Beach
Charleston sunrise Boneyard Beach
Sunrise is especially beautiful on Boneyard Beach.

Boneyard Beach

While I like to explore the interior of the island, the majority of Bulls Island visitors walk straight to Boneyard Beach, an incredible area where two ecosystem’s tug and pull at each other – the island’s maritime forest and ocean coast – leaving behind an amazing display of shoreline trees. Their eerie beauty will capture the imagination of every photographer and person with a phone.

I recently joined Coastal Expeditions for its once-a-month sunrise trip to Boneyard Beach. During the early morning excursion, the night sky and stars shone brightly. Plus our group viewed a meteor shower during the boat ride over to the island, which certainly can’t be planned. But if you wander a lot, sometimes amazing things happen. After sunrise, we hunted for the perfect shells on a shore covered with them and enjoyed shorebirds feeding in the surf.

Black skimmers at Cape Romain
Black skimmers at Cape Romain

Trips with Coastal Expeditions

Coastal Expeditions reviews on TripAdvisor are impressive; the level of admiration that grandparents exude over their favorite grandchildren; a score of 5 out of 5 with more than 1,100 reviews.

I’ve taken several different trips offered by Coastal Expeditions, but I’m a frequent patron of the Bulls Island Ferry trip, usually captained by naturalists Nick and Wil. While they’re not my grandchildren, I really admire them. They’re engaging and fun. My knowledge of the outdoors hovers around slightly above average, but the Coastal Expeditions staff are experts. I truly enjoy learning from them, plus they’ve helped me identify wildlife in my photos.

Coastal Expeditions offers a great array of outdoor adventures and learning. The company started with kayaking tours in the Charleston Harbor and expanded to a number of locations along the South Carolina coast. They tour lighthouses, other barrier islands, blackwater creeks, national forest and cypress-tupelo swamps, using passenger boats, canoes, paddleboards and kayaks.

In addition to my frequent trips to Bull’s Island, I’ve also joined Coastal Expeditions for one of its specialty tours, the Long-Billed Curlew Charter, where we saw threatened and endangered species including the trip’s namesake bird. Next year, I’ll be joining naturalists and guests for a weekend retreat at the island’s Dominick House. I’m looking forward to exploring and studying the refuge more intimately with Coastal Expeditions staff.

Charleston South Carolina alligators
Bull Island's inhabitants include an estimated 1,000 alligators.
gull sea star Cape Romain Charleston SC
You'll spot lots of wildlife at Cape Romain. Like this gull trying to eat a sea star.

Birds, gators and more

I can’t list every bird and critter I’ve seen during my visits, but here’s a sampling: bobcat, otters, raccoons, fox squirrels, deer, roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons, dolphins, American oyster catchers, black-necked stilts, sting rays, sea stars, white pelicans, black skimmers, threatened wood storks and zebra longwing butterflies.

I’ve also seen a great variety of herons, egrets, ducks and shorebirds. During each trip, I’m treated to some new oddity, such as a large gull attempting to devour a sea star. By the way, he was successful.

The island’s alligators draw a lot of visitors. During one of my visits, I encountered a British couple who came to Bulls Island in hopes of seeing the famous American gator. They accomplished the goal, about 20 times. Approximately 1,000 alligators live in the island’s interior and the Coastal Expedition staff provide great advice for safe viewing.

A bald eagle watches over Cape Romain near Charleston.
A bald eagle watches over Cape Romain near Charleston.

Pick your time of year

I’ve hiked Bull’s Island during each of its seasons. The island residents change every month, as birds come and go. I always take bug spray; I’m not one to chance. And I visit more often in spring and fall when the temperatures are more moderate. Most people walk the island; however, bicycles are allowed, but not on the beach.

Because hurricanes and storms can ravage the coast, I’ve purposely visited the island within days after storms, once Coastal Expeditions resumes its trips. Shelling and birding can be very unique as the area rebounds from the disruptive weather.

This past year I explored refuges in Montana, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas and a handful in the Carolinas. I’ll never visit all 562 national wildlife refuges, because Cape Romain keeps beckoning me back.